Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
When it comes to targeted advertising, there's much, much worse out there.
Has The Minority Report hit the Big Apple? A BuzzFeed report published early this morning recounted the discovery of hundreds of so-called “beacons” inside New York City phone booths. The devices, installed by the outdoor advertising firm Titan with blessings from the city’s Department of Information Technology and Communications, were meant to track passing smartphones through the “simple” use of Bluetooth and app technology, allowing marketers to push more relevant advertisements to customers as they march through the shopping playground that is New York. But just hours after the BuzzFeed report appeared online, City Hall had ordered Titan to remove the beacons from phone booths scattered throughout the city—about 500 in all.
A win for data privacy diehards? Perhaps. But Minority Report it ain’t. Unlike much web-based tracking technology, Titan’s collaboration with the telecomm company Gimbal actually forces users to first opt-in to the tracking technology. Tech that allows companies to track your whereabouts and targets advertising based on your location sounds freaky-deaky—but it’s no more freaky-deaky than the tracking technology we encounter on the web every day.
First, a little more information on these insidious phone booth beacons, according to BuzzFeed:
In its current iteration, a Gimbal beacon requires a third-party app to trigger advertisements, and requires those apps to receive “opt-in” permission from users in order to collect data and send notifications. (Users, of course, also need to have Bluetooth enabled.) Major League Baseball and GameStop, among others, already use Gimbal beacons in their stadiums and stores (respectively). Each uses its own proprietary app (though not necessarily integrated with Gimbal’s software). A beacon in a New York City phone booth ad would need to recognize a corresponding app to push beacon-linked content to that phone.
As BuzzFeed notes, the Gimbal technology was used recently in New York City during the Tribeca Film Festival, to notify festival-goers of nearby goings-on. To enable the beacons' tracking capabilities, film enthusiasts had to have enabled their devices' Bluetooth and granted the beacons, via app, permission to “see” where they were. It was a tit-for-tat, really—you give us your information, and we’ll give you information that you, in turn, can use. That sounds almost ... helpful.
Of course, there’s loads of tracking tech that doesn't ask for permission. File this one under “actually creepy”: As The New York Times reported this summer, the London-based startup Realeyes allows businesses with strategically placed webcams to analyze shoppers’ facial expressions for reactions to customer service and online ads. Russian start-up Synqera creates software that also uses facial recognition, this time to create targeted marketing based on a customer’s age, gender and mood. The best way to opt-out of these tracking services is to research which stores are using them and refuse to enter the premises. That, or not have a face.
Brick and mortar stores are experimenting with other non-optional tracking technologies. The firm RetailNext has developed programs that allow stores' security cameras to track individual users as they shop, logging information on where certain kinds of customers (women, for example) linger and where they don’t. RetailNext is using your smartphone, as well. If your phone is set to seek out Wi-Fi networks, a store using RetailNext and offering free wireless can figure out where you are down to a 10-foot radius, even if you’re not actually logged into their WiFi network.
Most companies don’t ask your permission to collect, analyze and sell your information online, either. Web-based retailers have had the ability to store cookies on your hard drive for at least 15 years. Though many browsers have “anti-cookie” settings, which either notify you when you’re accepting cookies or give you the option to decline them, their default is to accept the cookie Web script. A new technology called “online fingerprinting” is more difficult to block, but serves the same function: It gives marketers access and insight into what you’re doing online.
When it comes to apps of the sort used with Gimbal’s beacons, it seems that tracking is much more preventable. And American consumers are savvier about this sort of stuff than you might think. According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 54 percent of app users have decided against installing an app when they figured out how much personal information they would need to share to use it. Thirty percent said they had uninstalled an app because they learned it was collecting more information than they wanted to share. And remember: These poll numbers date back to before the name of one-man public service announcement Edward Snowden ever appeared in print. American consumers, then, might be even smarter about online privacy than they were two years ago.
And yet, there’s something inherently creepy to the idea that companies are tracking you via smartphone, even if you’ve given them permission to do it. A recent study by consumer insight group OpinionLab found that 77 percent of shoppers do not think it’s acceptable for retailers to track their in-store behavior via smartphone. Privacy concerns abound, particularly in a post-JP Morgan hack world. But Bill Ready, CEO of online credit card payment processing firm Braintree, told Fortune that Americans fear in-person tracking only because they don’t understand it yet.
With Twitter, for example, “I know I’m giving up privacy, but getting great utility in return,” he said. “People in the last 10 years have been consistently giving that trade-off. They have to make the conscious choice.”
Given all the concern, maybe New York should have done a better job keeping residents abreast of its phone booth plans. But with all the other tracking technology out there, the beacon panic seems misplaced.
For New York, it’s back to the drawing board. Enough about the creepy tech of the future—what’s a city to do with the 9,000 remaining reminders of our technology past?